book-reviews

The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

Rating: ★★★

The central idea of this book is sound. A personally-attested narrative history of the Chicago World's Fair, focusing on all the unlikely personages and circumstances that finally converged to make this great spectacle happen. And because fair-building could be a little dry, a story about a serial killer in Chicago at the same time, to liven it up. I don't think the second part would be strictly necessary, but I was intrigued by the concept of a novel-like presentation of a true event.

While the story of the fair was interesting and reasonably -- if not notably -- well told, in the end, the problem was that I lost my trust of Larson. This was mostly due to his extreme and blatant editorialising on the subject of Holmes. I understand that the source material on many events may not be available, and an author of this kind of work has to fill in some blanks based on the most likely course of events. That doesn't bother me, it's a requirement of the genre. What bothers me is when Larson presents the known facts, and then attempts to utterly negate them with some fanciful scenario.

There is no clearer demonstration of this than the skeleton episode from Holmes' childhood. Larson recounts a story from Holmes about when he was young and some older boys dragged him into the doctor's office to taunt him with a skeleton. Holmes reports being afraid at first, but actually feeling the event benefited him, as he overcame his fear and became interested in medicine. Larson reports this, and then says, almost literally: "probably, that didn't happen. Instead, he wasn't at all scared of the skeleton, and turned to stare coldly at the three boys, who then ran off". This is an extraordinarily stupid insertion. Holmes may have been a documented liar, but there's no real reason to suspect that this particular tale was invented -- it bore very little on any of his later behaviour. Even if you take the position that nothing he relates about his life is true, there is certainly no excuse for a non-fiction writer to wholesale invent an alternative scenelet, based on no supporting evidence, in order to project back onto Holmes some Hollywood conception of a child psychopath.

Larson basically burnt his credibility with me in that short section, barely a paragraph. Further examples cropped up as the Holmes section continued, and there were some other distastefully unnecessary attempts to dramatise the Fair thread. I read on to the end of the book to reach the conclusion, and some of the material is certainly interesting, but I am very much warned off Larson's other work, and to a slightly lesser extent the 'true crime' genre as a whole.